Sibling rivalry is a conflict between brothers and sisters that go beyond simple disagreements between two or more parties because of individual differences and different opinions on a subject. Starting from as early as the birth of the second child, sibling rivalry usually involves jealousy and competition between siblings which can show up as fighting on a frequent or routine basis. It is usually frustrating and stressful for parents who do not understand human psychology or the basis behind relationship conflicts. They are often at a loss as to how to respond to the ongoing conflict between their children.
Since sibling rivalry often shows up from early childhood, the following forms of sibling rivalry behaviour are often displayed in response to each other:
challenging a belief,
simply looking at each other (with the intent of intimidation)
breaking something that belongs to the other one,
throwing something at the other one,
hiding something that is important to the other person.
Reasons for sibling rivalry:
Children may feel their relationship with their parents is threatened by the arrival of a new baby. They were the centre’ of their parents’ attention until the new baby arrived. Now the new arrival is seen as a competitor for the parent’s attention.
Children feel they are getting unequal amounts of a parent’s attention, discipline, and responsiveness. Their sense of value is measured based on their evaluation of their parent’s attention to them. So they compete to be favoured.
Children who struggle to differentiate and individuate as unique individuals do not yet recognize their personal power except through conflict and competition with each other. It shows up as a power struggle.
Children who are hungry, bored or tired are more likely to become frustrated and start fights.
Children may not know positive ways to get attention for a sibling or how to start playful activities, so they pick fights instead.
Children’s developmental stages affect how mature they are and how well they can share a parent’s attention and get along with one another. The less mature sibling may be more likely to want their parents’ attention as an all-or-nothing need focused on them and not their siblings. This immaturity is expressed as an either-or view instead of being able to adopt the view of both-and (ie., both being important). As such, their level of emotional maturity is showing in their attempts to resolve their attempts to negotiate with each other to resolve their conflict.
Each child feels the need to compete with each other to define who they are as an individual. As they discover who they are, they may uncover their own talents, activities, and interests. Sibling rivalry shows up as their struggle to separate, differentiate or individuate from their siblings while feeling inferior or superior along the way in contrast to their sibling.
Stress in children’s lives can shorten their fuses, and decrease their ability to tolerate frustration, leading to more conflict.
Stress in the parents’ lives can decrease the amount of time and attention parents can give the children and increase sibling rivalry.
Family dynamics play a role. For example, one child may remind a parent of a relative who was particularly difficult, and this resentment may subconsciously be projected on their child to influence how the parent treats that child so that the child is regarded as, eg. the ‘black sheep’ or ‘the problem child’ vs. the idealized. The problem-child view can be accepted by the other siblings from the parents and then be regarded accordingly. Similarly, if a parent simply has a favourite child among their children, maybe because the child is regarded as more socially, academically or physically attractive among the children, this can foster jealousy, resentment and competition between the children.
How parents treat their kids and react to conflict can make a big difference in how well siblings get along. Children often fight more in families where parents think aggression and fighting between siblings are normal and an acceptable way to resolve conflicts.
Not having time to share regular, enjoyable family time together (like family meals) can increase the chances of children engaging in conflict. The absence of an emotional bond between the children can increase the likelihood of conflict.
Other factors that influence sibling rivalry:
Birth order: for example, it is common that the oldest and youngest child often receive the most attention while the middle children often feel overlooked (eg. the oldest being celebrated by the parents or extended family as the first-born; the youngest being celebrated as the ‘baby’ of the family).
Spacing between the children: when spaced further apart, there is usually less competition; when spaced more closely, there tends to be more.
Temperamental differences: temperamentally easy babies tend to be liked more while more difficult ones are experienced as more annoying.
If parents choose as a favourite or respond differently to their children, this can also spur more jealousy and competition or intensify competition between them.
Gender: in some families, a child of one sex is preferred over the other.
Physical influences: children who share a room may argue more due to being in constant close proximity with each other; a child who received more attention due to an illness or physical disability may leave siblings feeling neglected or ignored.
Parenting style or approach: Children with very permissive and overly harsh parents tend to fight more –permissive parents may not operate with adequate rules so children feel they have to settle their conflicts by themselves without guidance; overly harsh parents who are strict or harsh tend to model aggression to their children to get their needs met. The best outcomes show up with parents who have acquired what has been described as the authoritative approach.
Age of the children: as children mature and reach later developmental stages, sibling rivalry tends to decrease.
Transitional times: sibling rivalry tends to intensify when there are changes in the family, eg. the birth of a new baby, when a baby becomes mobile, when a sibling goes off to school, when a sibling leaves the family for college or marriage, if there is a divorce or a remarriage.
How to respond as parents?
With this knowledge already outlined, parents can lookout for ways to parent more intentionally. Firstly, they have to desire for their children to get along or be positive or loving with each other in the family. Interventions can then be planned for. They can be preventative or when conflicts occur, facilitate to address the identified need or help resolve the conflict between the children. For example, understanding how the birth order could raise the possibility of jealousy between siblings, or the prospect of one child being favoured over another, the importance for each child to be valued and appreciated as unique is an important practice. Also, parents need to watch how they manage their own conflicts as their children view them as role models for life learning. At the same time, they can remain optimistic when they realize that some sibling rivalry is inevitable and that as children mature and learn ways to handle conflicts, the rivalry will usually subside. The younger they are, the more parents are called on to be a referee. Probably the most help needed to be directive with the children is 4 years or younger. Here are some useful strategies to help children manage their conflicts:
Communicate the basic message that includes:
Acknowledgement that they both want their way by arguing with each other rather than to cooperate.
Hitting each other, calling each other names or bullying is not going to work.
They both have needs in the situation and they have to find out how they can both be acknowledged and met but without fighting.
Find out how to do this by themselves of you will decide on their behalf in a way they may not like.
Establish rules for managing the conflict.
Having rules in place is a way of communicating your family values. So the parent needs to decide what behaviours are important and what they wish to enforce. This is an effective preventive strategy.
Handling conflicts and anger “No hitting, use words to say what you are upset about.”
Family Values/morals “We treat each other with respect.”
Parents’ role when there is conflict “If I get involved, I will determine the outcome.”
Hurt or property is damaged “Whoever caused the hurt or damage must make amends.”
Personal possessions and boundaries “We don’t take someone else’s things without asking first.”
Complaining “No complaining to get someone in trouble; you can “tell” to get someone out of trouble.” For example, a child telling his mother that his sibling just entered his room without permission.
Cooperation “Work it out between you two or if I get involved, neither of you might like what I decide.”
Conflict Resolution Sibling rivalry highlights the need for children to be taught the skill of conflict resolution. When they are young, the parent will have to walk them through the whole process after each conflict. In time, they will be able to resolve their conflicts with their siblings and others on their own. In summary, this process involves each child learning to express his point of view and listening to the other child’s point of view, generating a number of possible solutions that work for each of them, choosing one solution, and trying it. It encourages listening for and the expression of feelings to understand each other to discern what they both need. In this practice, it fosters the development of the sense of mutuality, and promotes the practice of collaboration and cooperation. This skill helps your children to navigate current and future relationships with their peers. It is useful throughout their life. It can equip them to be emotionally and relationally competent and capable as they see that they can come up with solutions to problems in relationships without fighting. But in order to engage in a problem exploration process, the children must be calm enough to dialogue. Time out may be called until both are calm enough to proceed. The parent also has to model for their children when it comes to handling conflict. The lesson is obviously more powerful when the parents practise this themselves. Use “fair fight” rules yourself.
Use cool off times to calm down first; then re-enter the situation.
Give second chances and opportunities to make amends.
Listening well: seek first to understand, then to be understood. In order to seek to understand, we must first learn to listen (Stephen Covey’s 5th habit of highly effective people).
Attitudes and additional strategies that help to encourage health sibling relationships:
Expect many episodes of sibling rivalry.
Treat your children as the unique individuals they are.
Do not show favouritism.
Stay calm and objective.
Recognizing the need is important in discussing ‘fairness.’
Don’t look for someone to blame or punish. Take personal responsibility to communicate well with each other.
Don’t get in long discussions about what happened (it can act as a reward for their arguments)
Establish basic relational rules: encourage communication, listening and understanding of feelings with empathy, taking turns.
Reinforce and remind them of a list of basic rules: “You can express your feelings to communicate clearly without having to be hurtful;” ”Use your words and not your fists;” “Speak to them in the way you would like to be spoken to.”
Encourage the children to solve their problems: be creative to find out “What would work for you both?”
Be aware of developmental stages: very young children find it hard to share as they need to have a sense of possession before they can share.
Don’t referee a fight if you don’t know what happened.
Do not allow your children to pit one parent against the other. Discuss privately and directly between parents if they disagree with a parenting decision made by the other.
Do not bemoan to the children that they “fight all the time” (or they will live up to this pronouncement).
Reward them verbally for their efforts at collaboration to promote a loving or positive connection between themselves. Valuing them verbally models for them to value each other. This also promotes both their self-esteem.
These attitudes are commonly practised by parents who embrace an authoritative approach to parenting. But when the conflicts get out of control and do not stop, get professional help. The relational skills children learn in childhood is what they practice with as adults. The ability to be effective in relationships is crucial to personal success later when children grow up to marry, have families of their own or at work.
Written by: Dr Mark Toh, Consultant Clinical Psychologist
It is a reality that we can choose our friends. If at times we find them annoying, we can always choose to make adjustments or even terminate the friendship if needed. But unfortunately, we cannot choose our family members. As such, it can be a challenging and sometimes very difficult situation when family members are emotionally unhealthy and they have not sought help to address their own difficulties.
Instead, by having to live with them as members of the same family, they become a regular source of mental distress. This can pose a particular burden for minors, or those still dependent on the difficult member as the financial source of living, or during the current coronavirus lock-down imposed by the government when family members are confined together. In some cases, especially when violence and harm is a possibility, these unhealthy members can become damaging or dangerous and more drastic action may need to be taken to promote safety.
For the child, this may be confusing if the source of difficulty from parents are due to attempts to parent or from inappropriate control. Or they may have siblings who like being bossy to their siblings. Here are some signs to consider in trying to differentiate healthy from unhealthy behaviours from difficult family members.
They are always blaming you while not accepting their own responsibilities.
Individuals who engage in unhealthy relational behaviours often have difficulty taking ownership for contributing to the problems that emerge between each other during disagreements or conflict. Their need to blame others is usually a defensive response against accepting their own guilt or responsibility for their fault or wrong in the situation.
They are always critical towards you.
Unhealthy family members also often present themselves as critical. This goes beyond a simple discussion to point out about errors if or when you or someone else has made them. But it appears more as a pattern or their habit in regarding you as a target of contempt. Words that undermine your character are often expressed. It is also often expressed regardless of the many accomplishments you may have achieved. It is often an expression of projection that reflects deep resentment or the unfulfilled wishes of the parent on a family member. Sometimes it is a resentment shared between both parents and projected on a child who they have identified as the “scapegoat”. The scapegoat in unhealthy families are usually children who are targeted for blame because the parents need to fault the child to avoid taking ownership of a problem.
They are dismissive of your feelings.
A healthier family is more prone to being encouraging or supportive especially in difficult times. But the unhealthy family member is often unconcerned of your feelings or even your opinion. The extent of their dismissal of you may show up as disagreement with you even if you are right. In severe cases, if you attempted to approach them to resolve a disagreement, they may even resort to convincing you as the problem. In this focus, they could convince you to see that you are the problem rather than to problem-solve in search of a solution that has mutual benefits.
They often make threats.
Physical altercations are not the only signs when the relationship or behaviour is unhealthy. Making threats especially when repeated is often employed as a means of control. This is going beyond anger which is a common feeling within long-term relationships. Anger is a sign when someone feels offended, frustrated or hurt. But the use of threats goes beyond anger to become an instrument of intimidation or domination, and a misuse of power. It is a common behaviour of abusive individuals.
They are controlling.
There is a difference between control from healthy parenting and unhealthy parenting. Healthy parenting is focused on what is in the child’s best interests. When discipline is exercised, it is done to facilitate learning for the child. In unhealthy parenting, control is displayed more because it is primarily attentive to the parents’ wishes and not in the best interests of the child. This is often expressed when the parent becomes forceful and induces fear on the child so that the parent can feel powerful or have his or her way. This control can also be applied between couples or siblings. The family member is expected to take the role of submission in their engagement for the controlling person to be pacified.
Additional signs for concern in this area is suggested by (a) prohibition of personal decision-making that is good for the family member, (b) issues of appropriate concern are denied from being raised for discussion, (c) material resources such as money or food are used to manipulate the family member towards submission, (d) there is direct restrictions into personal choices pertaining to clothes, appearances, spending, friendships, or even use of time, and (e) there is an opposition towards the family member becoming independent, to be separated from the unhealthy individual, or for the family member to be individuated (mature to become their own person) over time. Between couples, a controlling spouse is often violating the boundaries of his or her spouse. It is as if the controlled spouse is not allowed to be free to exercise his or her own choices.
They confuse punishment with discipline.
Discipline is the means to teach someone to abide by a code of conduct, or correction for a child to learn right from wrong. But for the unhealthy individual, punishment or discipline occurs when there is no lesson to be learned. It shows up usually because the person is unhappy for some reason. Their need to lash out is their attempt to vent out their anger or rage even if it becomes hurtful to others, and they feel justified conducting themselves this way. At other times, this punishment is expressed through passive aggressive behaviours when “silent treatment” is employed instead of yelling or shouting. Or the punishing behaviour is excessive and disproportionate to the action or event.
Unhealthy parents take sibling rivalries or ‘misbehaviour’ to the extreme.
This usually occurs when the unhealthy parent is resentful of all his or her children. They may feel that having children (or marriage) have become a personal cost to them because of the responsibilities required for the care of the children. They feel prevented or deprived of their freedom and so the children or family member are to blame. Or this could show up with a parent showing favourites to one child over the others. In the course of sibling rivalry, the unhealthy parents is revealed by (a) blaming one child more severely over the other and consistently, (b) humiliating the scapegoated child, or (c) the unhealthy parent experience the sibling rivalry or conflict as a personal or vindictive act against the parent.
Strategies for Coping with Unhealthy Parents or domineering spouses and/or siblings
It may be a sad reality that parents can consider themselves parents simply because the infant is born following his or her physical birth. But beyond the biology, the emotional maturity, readiness or mental health can often be found lacking in parents to create the healthy conditions for the infant to develop or thrive. Controlling family members who are narcissistic in nature are also more interested in their control than the well-being of others. When family members regularly display the above behaviours, there is a need for concern. Given the potential for mental distress, developmental disruption and suffering, the following strategies may be essential to assist in coping.
Know that you are your own person.
Although you may share some traits or the same family name with your parents, remember that you are not 100% of the same people who raised you. If you recognise that your parents are emotionally unhealthy, understand that you do not need to follow their same values or behavioural patterns. When you realise that you have been hurt by them repeatedly and their use of authority serves their own interests over your needs to develop in a healthy way, be ready to break away from their self-serving values to work towards a healthy development for yourself. Explore to find healthy models of functioning among others to seek their influence over your lives rather than what is practiced at home.
Create space for your own emotions to nurture your own sense of self.
The unhealthy parent, spouse or sibling often do not respect your personal boundaries. They may deny your personal space or your feelings because they are preoccupied with their own. They may not discuss matters out or they may attempt to deny an essential part of who you are. While they deny how you may feel in their relationship with you, this does not mean you cannot acknowledge or express your own feelings by blogging or journalling.
Find supportive relationships elsewhere.
When your family members have made themselves unapproachable, you can turn to others for support instead. Friends, teachers, counsellors, or colleagues are often available to relate to who engage with a healthier appreciation for you. You do not need to go through difficulties alone. So find a support system from those who appreciate you for who you are and who value you in the person you can become.
Understand that your parent, spouse or siblings may have narcissistic tendencies or a self-serving biases so set your expectations low in conversations with them.
Unhealthy parents, spouses or siblings highlight the need to understand mental illness. Having to engage family members who have already discounted you, or hold you in contempt is often more reflective of them than of you. For this reason, understanding if they have a narcissistic or anti-social personality or tendencies is useful to recognise their biases. You may wish to have deep, meaningful or respectful conversations with them. But since this is not possible for those who are narcissistic or anti-social in nature, keeping exchanges brief and light is best to minimise stress or conflict.
Be prepared to employ diversion tactics in conversation.
Being diversionary may not be appreciated in social circles. But if your family member is controlling or looking for conflict, having a mutually respectful conversation may not be possible. As such, their attempts to dominate or argue can be diverted. For example, if they choose to criticise your choice about what you bought, you can note their comment while affirming your choice. Then this can be followed up by you changing the topic. This may allow you to have some control while you may be under attacked.
Recognise the traits that make you an easy prey.
For some, the need to dominate can be influenced by their perception that you have difficulty standing up for yourself. Their view that you are unable to be firm in protecting yourself may appear as an invitation to them to bully or dominate. Learning to stand your ground will help to establish yourself as deserving of respect.
Expect their angry response but do not surrender to it.
Your attempts to hold your ground or establish personal boundaries may be seen as a threat to the controlling parent or spouse. They see it as a challenge to their need to dominate or control. As such, anger can be employed as their weapon. It is important to not be paralysed by the person and to remember that you still have power. This power may not be accepted by them but you have power nevertheless. You can continue to pursue what is clearly in your best interests despite the threats and anger they express. Choosing the right timing to pursue your interests with them may be required. Or being able to refer to the credibility of someone else with authority on the subject may be helpful to borrow these views to help you to hold your position.
Aim to be self-sufficient and independent.
The need to establish your healthy sense of self and personal integrity is important. Your own mental health depends on it. In the face of parents or family members who are clearly focused against your best interests in pursuit of their own interests, you can set goals to be financially independent in order to become autonomous with what is needed to establish your own integrity and identity. Unhealthy parents often employ money as a means of keeping the child dependent. As such, learning to budget and be self-financing will help to establish your independence from them.
Do not accept abusive behaviour and the effects of it.
Recognising the signs of mistreatment from abusive parents, spouses or siblings should allow you to feel the anger you have reason to feel. Often these people may also engage in seduction or manipulation to downplay their dysfunction and hide their mistreatment of you. Being able to recognise their self-serving bias and the potential damage that this can create is important to not allow them to justify it. If their mistreatment is justified, it is more likely that you could minimise the damage and practice it yourself.
If the abuse is persistent or violent, be prepared to get help and seek shelter and protection outside the family.
This is hard to do for children but the sad reality is that some parents are poorly prepared to parent or they are mentally ill when they decided to have children. It is a sad and tragic reality that children have died from neglect, abuse or mistreatment while in the hands of their parents or caregivers. Children have been starved, exploited, tortured in the hands of violent, mentally ill parents. This has also occurred between couples as indicated by one spouse being regularly abused by another. Abuse can be physical, emotional and/or sexual, and they can happen between couples and on children within a marital or family system. If only one parent is aggressive or violent, the other parent has to be prepared to seek shelter to protect themselves or their children. If in the case of one parent being violent and the other parent ignores the child being abused, the children need to be protected from both parents.
This article is a call to alert those who may be suffering within families. Tragically, there are hidden dangers that vulnerable family members may be exposed to. They may already be suffering in subtle or obvious ways at the hands of unhealthy, abusive or emotionally damaging family members. Our collective concern for the weak calls out for us to be sensitive to when this danger is present within our community to protect the vulnerable among us.
Faubion, D. (2020, Apr). Toxic family dynamics: the signs and how to cope with them.
Chen, C. (2015, Feb 25). What to do when the toxic people in your life are (unfortunately) your parents. The Huffington Post.
Streep, P. (2016, Dec 14). 8 strategies for dealing with the toxic people in your life. Psychology Today.
Thorpe, J. (2015, Sep 18). 7 tips for dealing with toxic parents. Bustle.
Bullying can be manifested in many forms, and children and youth can be involved in many ways in it. However, with 1 in 4 children in Singapore reporting that they have experienced bullying a few times a month, bullying might be closer to home than you think.
Bullying is done with the intent to hurt and is repeated or persistent. Often, the target of bullying finds it difficult to stop it or stand up for himself / herself. This is different from peer conflicts or quarrels which typically involve incidents where children mutually hurt each other. As parents and caregivers, how do we support our children as they navigate the complexities of relationship-building, and what are some warning signs that indicate that they are involved in bullying?
Broadly, there are three different types of bullying
Relational: When hurtful actions are made with the intention to shame a person and damage the forming of healthy relationships and friendships. This can take the form of leaving someone out of a group, teasing, name-calling, expressing negative thoughts or feelings about a person, and even intimidating them to do things against their will.
Physical: When harm has been inflicted on a person or their belongings. This can take the form of hitting, punching, kicking, inappropriate touching and persistent damaging or stealing of belongings.
Cyber-bullying: Occurs on the internet, through mobile phones, computers, video-game systems and other forms of technology. Both relational and physical bullying can occur on this platform. For example, digital technology can be used to gossip and spread rumours or hostile messages, or game accounts can be hacked and items stolen.
How do I identify if my child is involved in bullying?
Recognising these warning signs is the first step in stemming bullying.
Warning signs of being a target of bullying:
has unexplainable cuts, bruises, scratches or other injuries
comes home with lost, torn, damaged, or destroyed clothing, books, stationeries or other belongings
is unusually hungry after returning from school
seems fearful of going to school, walking to and from school, riding the school bus, or taking part in organized activities with peers, and often finds or makes up excuses (e.g. faking illness) as to why he/she cannot go to school
has declining grades, lost interest in school work or suddenly begins to do poorly in school
experiences a loss of appetite, or has changes in eating habits like skipping meals or binge eating
reports sleeping difficulty (e.g. trouble falling and staying asleep, frequent bad dreams, etc)
complains frequently of headaches, stomachaches or other physical ailments
suddenly stops talking about friends and has few, if any, friends, with whom he or she spends time with during recess or after school
is withdrawn and stammers
continually ‘loses’ money or starts stealing
appears anxious, sad, moody, teary, or depressed when he or she comes home and suffers from low self-esteem
self-harms or talks about suicide
becomes aggressive and unreasonable
refuses to talk about what is wrong
begins to target siblings
Emotional and Behavioural signs
Warning signs of engaging in bullying:
gets into verbal or physical fights
suddenly possesses unexplained extra money or new belongings
often reacts aggressively towards others
has friends who bully others
may be excessively worried about their popularity and reputation
can be competitive
has received many disciplinary warnings and actions
refuses to accept responsibility for their actions
What should I do if I think my child is involved in bullying?
It is important to talk with children who show signs of being bullied or bullying others. The safety and mental health of our children should remain an utmost concern. It’s painful to think of your child receiving or inflicting harm on other kids, but bullying is a serious issue for both the targeted and the aggressor. According to research, a vast majority of bullies have also been the targets of bullying, and less than 1% of primary school children are “true bullies” – those who were not bullied by their peers.
Bear these three C’s in mind when relating with your child: Communicate, Consult and Connect
Communicate If you hear from a teacher or another parent that your child involved in a bullying situation, the first thing you should do is talk to your child about the situation. Be direct about the issue, but make it clear that you are open to hearing your child’s side of the story. Stay calm and say something like, “Your teacher called to tell me that you were involved in some bullying. I’m really concerned about this, and we need to talk about it. Please tell me what happened.”Avoid prejudging the situation and reacting based on emotions. It can be tempting to immediately blame the other party, criticise parenting, or condemn the school system, but it is also worth taking time to look inward and reflect on whether your own actions may be influencing your child’s. Some children may be modelling their interpersonal style based on the behaviour they have observed. If so, it is important to start fostering a positive home environment, where members of the family treat one another with kindness and respect, creating a safe space for children to share their worries and failures.
Consult Talking through the situation with your child can help you understand why the bullying is happening, and what steps need to be taken in order to stop it. For example, you may find that your child has incredibly low self-esteem and bullying helped him/her feel powerful and able to control something. He/she might prefer being known as ‘the worst kid in school’ and interacting with other children in the process, rather than not being noticed at all and having no friends. Or perhaps your child might accept being the target of bullying with the mistaken belief that such behaviours are acceptable between friends. Some children may not be able to articulate their feelings. This is especially true of children who are struggling with anxiety, trauma, or another mental health issue. If you are having trouble, consider consulting a child psychologist or psychiatrist who has a lot of experience evaluating kids’ behaviours. Your child might need a therapist’s help to work through underlying issues, investigate the root of the problem and guide you and your child in tackling the specific challenges that your child faces in his/her social interactions.
Connect Ultimately, it is about building a close and lasting connection with your child. Connecting with your child about his/her day-to-day life will put you in a better position to recognise signs of bullying and trouble. Start with asking your child a few open-ended questions on a daily basis. For example, ask him/her to share about one really great thing that happened that day, and one not-so-great thing. It can be tough to get started, but children who are regularly encouraged to share details of their lives with their parents tend to be more comfortable with continuing to do so when they are in their adolescence. Listening to your child in a supportive, non-judgmental way helps them feel connected to your presence and love in their lives, and makes them more receptive to opening up to you about their problems as well as accepting the advice that you give to them. It is always better to handle challenging issues like bullying together so that your child will be able to walk out of the shadow of the bullying with confidence and courage.
The 2nd Singapore Mental Health Study (SMHS) which began in 2016 (reported in December 2018) was initiated by the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) in collaboration with the Ministry of Health (MOH) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU). The study focused only on those 18 years old and above. The findings show that 13.9% or 1 in 7 Singaporeans have experienced a mood (major or bipolar depression), anxiety (obsessive compulsive disorder and generalised anxiety disorder) or alcohol use disorder (alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence) in their lifetime. These are the top 3 mental disorders in Singapore among the conditions assessed in the study. The study also reported that more than three-quarters of those with a mental disorder in their lifetime did not seek professional help. In the first SMHS study in 2010, the lifetime prevalence rate of mental disorders in the Singapore population was 12% or 1 in 8 persons.
In a 2012 publication on Depression by the Ministry of Health, it was reported that depression affects between 2.5% to 18% of youth*. Depression among youths in Singapore is considered common. But it is a serious mental health symptom because of it what it reflects of children’s experiences in their environment. In particular, it is a serious reflection of what they may experience in the family or relational environment. If not adequately treated, the depressed child is likely to bring their depression into adulthood. This means that the emotionally wounded or damaged child is likely to carry their wounds forward as adults. This is a likely scenario because it is estimated that an initial episode of depression increases the likelihood of a second episode by 50%. A second major episode of depression increases the likelihood of a 3rd episode of depression by 75%. A third major episode of depression increases the likelihood of a 4th episode by 100%. Not surprisingly, depression has been found to affect brain structures and functioning. It is this recurrent tendency of depression that the suicide risk often increases over time within the same individual with a history of depression.
The risk of depression in childhood needs to be a major consideration for all those concerned with the development of children. Depression among children is a serious health problem because it can impair the emotional development of the child. It can seriously affect identity formation which is foundational to how the emerging adolescent learns to relate to themselves, to others and to the world at large. Later as adults, depression can impair psycho-social as well as occupational functioning. Depression is associated with significant morbidity and mortality. Also, depression can be triggered by, or lead to, other mental health conditions such as substance abuse, anxiety, schizophrenia or personality disorders.
Signs to watch for in children who may be depressed:
Continuous feelings of sadness and hopelessness
Irritability or anger
Increased sensitivity to rejection
Changes in appetite — either increased or decreased
Changes in sleep — sleeplessness or excessive sleep
Vocal outbursts or crying
Fatigue and low energy
Physical complaints such as stomachaches, headaches that do not respond to treatment
Reduced ability to function during events and activities at home or with friends, in school, extracurricular activities, and in other hobbies or interests
Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
Impaired thinking or concentration
Thoughts of death or suicide
Not all depressed children display these symptoms. They are more likely to display different symptoms at different times at different settings. When depression is significant, there are often noticeable changes in social activities, loss of interest in school and poor academic performance, or a change in appearance.
The young child is most vulnerable to depression due to the quality of relationships with his or her caregivers. This vulnerability increases when the family environment is also accompanied by marital conflict, abuse, violence, illness and/or low socioeconomic status. However, it is in the quality of relationships with caregivers that is crucial because of what it can offer as a buffer or protection from other external events or causes. Therefore, the mental health of children begins with thoughtful parents who genuinely understand and care about their child’s emotional needs and development.
Parenting Practices that promote Good Mental Health in Children:
1. Love your child unconditionally
A genuine attitude to decide in the best interests of your child, and not in the parent’s convenience. Children thrive under certain physical and emotional conditions. The long-term view is needed. Parenting must understand the healthy outcome effective parenting can produce. This helps to plan to optimise the emotional development of the child. Loving well in the best interests of the child provides the best head start towards orienting the child to relate to themselves and others in a healthy way. Children’s need to establish a healthy identity, to uncover and stretch their potential, and learn to self-actualise will require parents to stretch their own emotional ‘ceiling.’ This means parents who desire to raise emotionally healthy children have to face their own insecurities so as not to impose them on their own children. Parenting with the best interests of the child will often be at the inconvenience of parents especially if parents do not appreciate the value of nurturing relationships which children thrive on.
Loving your child well answers the deep longing for the child to later ask, “Am I worthwhile?” The need for children to recognise their own personal importance, value and worth prepares them to find that their later life will amount to significance. The child at risk of depression commonly struggle with this sense of self regard. Loving the child unconditionally is not based on the social or academic performance that society may hold out for children. Instead, mistakes are accepted as a natural part of their learning. If the parents placed their importance on their children only in reaching their own ambitions, or social or academic accomplishments, these indicate conditional expectations for them to find approval or acceptance. The will view their worth based on what they do instead of who they are.
2. Ensure safe and secure physical and emotional surroundings
Secure attachment, which is offering an ongoing, consistent, soothing, accepting presence to the infant is the important beginning in the parent-child relationship that helps the infant to learn to feel safe and secure in the world. This is a foundational need for positive mental health in infants and children and later adulthood. Emotional safety from the secure bond offered by a secure parent helps young children to trust the caregiver and to experience their world as safe and predictable. Through this quality of care, a child is encouraged to first accept themselves as as lovable, as important. It also prepares them next to want to explore their world as they mature physically. This means parents who wish the best for their children have to prepare them to become independent over time.
Punitive, harsh or neglectful parents, especially when physical punishment is employed, leads to children questioning their worth or value and increases the risk for later depression. Parents who frequently employ shame, threats, insults or convey other derogatory messages to their children tend to raise a child who view themselves as defective. This is particularly damaging to children. Indeed, the DSM-V lists the sense of hopelessness or worthlessness as a common symptom of depression. Children can be raised to view themselves as defective, and that their life as meaningless.
Promoting a safe emotional environment emphasises listening and empathy as skills, and being age-appropriate supportive as an attitude. Being emotionally present and listening well will foster the child’s wish to share their experiences. It builds on the bond already started from providing a secure attachment. It encourages children to view the parent and other people as a safe resource they can count on later if needed. It answers the important question that children ask, “Is it OK to be me?” This also fosters familiarity with emotional intimacy that better prepare children for friendships and significant relationships later. Familiarity with close and supportive relationships also mean that the child is less likely to isolate themselves socially when they face problems later on. It is a wise parent who value interactional activities with their young children early on rather than let them become overly attached to computer games and the internet to amuse themselves. Excessive computer use at the detriment of other activities has been linked to increased loneliness, poor social development and depression.
3. Nurture Self-confidence and High Self-esteem
Self-confidence is most easily found when children grow up feeling loved unconditionally.
The foundation provided when the child feels loved should be supported by the child’s search for mastery in the world when they are ready to explore. Starting with simple activities, their need for autonomy and mastery over their environment allows them to gain confidence over the tasks they wish to take on. It is important for parents to support this rather than to over-protect them from exploration. Parents who are over-protective of their children and anxious about possible mishaps will find it difficult to foster the autonomy and independence their children need. To build their self-confidence and nurture high self-esteem, parents should be ready to praise their children’s exploratory efforts, be honest with them about their own mistakes, participate in the children’s activities, encourage them in activities where their interests match their ambitions and allow them to be tested by the tasks they take on.
The child’s ability to overcome, which allows them to be exposed to the frustrations and disappointments along the way, is something they have to face as well. Children should be encouraged to enjoy the process in the process of becoming. Learning to face their own frustrations, disappointments and failures will also serve to build self-confidence. Avoiding frustrations or disappointments or learning through determined effort and even failure tends to undermine self-confidence. The opportunities for children to grow through tasks and responsibilities is the beginning from which they can discover and establish their personal power and resilience.
Looking for ways to nurture your child’s self-confidence and develop high esteem answers the child need to know “Can I do it?” It requires that parents focus on building strength or resilience through the children’s autonomy –their learning to exercise control over their environment– rather than emphasize ease or comfort through avoidance.
4. Promote opportunities to Play with other children and self
Play is an integral part of emotional development of children. It is the primary means in which children learn to explore, to discover themselves in their world, and socially to cooperate, take turns and help in friendships. Studies have even suggested that inadequate play time for preschool children lead to more disruptive behaviour. Besides social interactions, play allows for the development of emotional awareness and fosters empathy where children learn about their own emotions as well as the emotions of others. Play also allows children to enjoy the process of becoming one self. This is important in a goal-oriented world that emphasises only winning or success or grades. Indeed they can discover the truth that frustrations and disappointments are often the price we all pay to achieve success. In so doing, play allows children to learn how to emotionally regulate their feelings when they are presented with opportunities to learn to express thoughts, feeling and behaviours in socially appropriate ways.
Play is an important part of the child’s need to learn and experiment. Participation in play individually or in a group is an integral part of this learning process. Parents who are open to social interactions offer their children important advantages because they can facilitate their children’s emotional regulation and social learning when they play with their children on a regular basis. Children are more likely to enjoy other people contact when they already enjoy warm relationships with and have fun with their parents. TV or computer use should be monitored so that children are encouraged to engage more in active learning through participation. Computer games designers have made it easier for children, especially children who are neglected or are alone a lot, to be addicted to computer games. Excessive computer use has been found to be linked to depression in children.
Play offers the opportunity to address the questions that children ask, “Am I OK and is it good to be me?
5. Provide appropriate guidance and discipline
While children need to explore, develop new skills and become more independent and responsible, they also need to learn that certain behaviours are not acceptable. They need to be offered guidance and discipline that is fair and consistent from the family unit. They tend to take these social rules to their school and eventually to the workplace. Expectations may be expressed firmly but they need to be kind and realistic. Again, children learn best within encouraging and nurturing relationships. Parents need to be aware of their own maturity and growth and emotional status as they seek to help their children develop self-control, self-discipline or become kind. Their children cannot be expected to growth in those areas which parents have not grown themselves.
Explain “why” the child is being disciplined and the consequences of their actions. Criticism should be focused on the behaviour and not the person. Threats, nagging and the use of threats should be avoided. The power that the parent wields should emphasise guidance and instruction in the best interests of the child that allow for children to learn from their mistakes. Those parents who practice excessive domination or coercion should understand that it is not helpful in the long run if children are forced to accept a place of surrender in order for them to survive in the relationship. They need to be encouraged to exercise their own power when appropriate. What has been described as authoritarian parenting, characterised by high demands with poor feedback or nurturance has also been found associated with a higher incidence of depression in children. This is in sharp contrast to authoritative parenting which is characterised by high demands accompanied by responsiveness to the child’s emotional needs. This approach is found to produce children who are responsible, they can regulate themselves, they can make good decisions on their own, and they are respectful to others and to rules.
Parenting is primarily a personal and emotional project in raising one’s children. It is foundationally an emotional process to secure the child before a young child eventually matures to believe in themselves. This is crucial before they begin to actively learn to navigate themselves in an increasingly complex world. It is widely understood as a parent’s most important life task since the emotional outcome show up in emotionally healthy or unhealthy individuals even before adulthood beckons. There is an emotional ‘birthing’ process where the Self of a child arrives at a healthy place in their identity formation. Or the opposite will happen. Quality parenting in this ‘birthing’ process create the foundation in which the next generation of children find the basis for their own survival, happiness and fulfilment. As such, parents learning to parent with optimal outcomes will do well to emotionally mature and be healthy themselves so that their children have the best chance to establish themselves in a healthy place in preparation to thrive in life.
The Ministry of Health, Depression: MOH Clinical Practice Guidelines, 2011.
Woo BSC, Chang WC, Fung DSS, Koh JBK, Leong JSF, Kee CHY, et al. Development and validation of a depression scale for Asian adolescents. J Adolesc. 2004 Dec; 27(6):677-89.
Woo BSC, Ng TP, Fung DSS, Chan YH, Lee YP, Koh JBK, et al. Emotional and behavioral problems in Singaporean children based on parent, teacher and child reports. Singapore Med J. 2007 Dec; 48(12):1100-6.